Blondie stared straight ahead and focused his opal-green killer eyes on Myers Hill. Even though the 1948 Chevy pick-up truck was struggling under the weight of Al Capone's vault, he had to coax the six-cylinder motor to get up enough speed to get up the hill.
He gripped the black knob on the floor shift, shifted through all four gears, and jammed the accelerator down. With black, oily smoke pouring out its rusty tailpipe, the tailgate rattling, and a broken spring, causing the little green truck to tilt to one side, he charged the bottom of Myers Hill.
As a yellow splash of sunlight danced on his shoulder, a red flash of his girlfriend's polished red fingernails caught his eye. He jerked his head in her direction.
Carolyn raised her hands in protest. "I know you're trying to get away from a life of crime. But slow down!"
"We'll be all right."
Carolyn dropped her hands to her lap and raised her voice. "The tires are bald. They'll blow out."
Determined to make it up the hill, Blondie stared straight ahead. "I know that."
With a look of excruciating discomfort filling her lovely face, Carolyn balled her hand into a fist. Rearing back to strike Blondie's shoulder, she screamed, "Slow down!"
Blondie kept his foot flat to the floor. "The illegal gold we have in the back is our future. If we get stuck, they'll take it."
For a moment, Carolyn's cheeks grew tight with fury, but she slowly lowered her fist and jerked her silky black hair to the side. As it flowed over her red gingham shirt of her bra-less body, she forced a nod and tensed for a crash.
Halfway up the hill, the motor groaned and began to lose power. Blondie downshifted into third gear. After a few yards, the truck slowed.
Blondie hit second gear. For a moment, the truck gained a little speed, but it was not enough. He double-clutched and jammed the transmission into low gear. Letting the engine run wide open, he jerked his foot off the clutch pedal. It popped up off the floor. The transmission whined and the engine bogged down. Smoke and the smell burning asbestos rolled out from under the floor. Just as it was about to stall, the engine surged with new energy. The truck increased speed.
Near the top of the hill, the engine slowed. Trying to encourage the truck to go faster, Blondie banged on the steering wheel. "Come on, you piece of junk."
With its overworked engine protesting in a steady moan, the truck crawled toward the top of the hill. It was going to make it. Blondie was finally going to be a rich man. The tension of a lifetime vanished. With a relieved grin, he looked over at Carolyn.
Her prominent cheekbones accented her lovely face and reminded him of a movie star. Soon, they would have a beautiful life together. He reached over and gently touched her on the shoulder. Tomorrow, we'll be married."
Carolyn reached over and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Yes, we will."
Before the truck got to the top of the hill - there! The black blur of a Cadillac lurched to the right. It swayed so far over, for a moment, it rode on two wheels. Then it leapt over the centerline and came right at the truck. Cutting the wheel to swerve away from the impending crash, Blondie hit the brakes. The bald tires locked up. The truck skidded toward the Cadillac.
In the Cadillac, horror filled the man's face. He jerked the steering wheel. The speeding Cadillac flew off the road.
Just when Blondie felt he had avoided a crash, the vault in the back shifted toward the broken spring side of the truck. The sideways movement jerked him across the seat. He mashed Carolyn against the door. As he tired to get back behind the steering wheel, the bald tires let the truck slide off the road.
He managed to pull his body back behind the steering wheel, but it was too late. They were rapidly heading down the steep side of Myers Hill. He glanced off to the left. As if they were in a race to the river, the Cadillac sailed down the hill ahead of them. Grass and brush whipped at the front of the Cadillac, but the heavy front bumper cut and whapped it, sending it flying into the air.
Carolyn held her hands straight out and braced herself on the dashboard. The truck hit the grass.
The Cadillac shot into the water.
The speed of the truck increased. Grass and weeds flew up and plastered the windshield.
Carolyn screamed, "I can't see. Hit the brakes!"
Standing on the brake pedal with both feet, Blondie could not stop the truck. Rushing toward the water, it hit a boulder. Blondie flew up. His head clunked on the metal roof and sent a bright four-pointed star into his mind. He felt the truck lift off the side of the hill. As it sailed into the air, a tingling sensation rolled in his stomach. The truck whipped across the water with incredible speed but finally slowed and came to a stop. Just before he blacked out, an earsplitting squeal of steel being ripped apart burned into his brain.
Sometime later, Blondie opened his eyes. But it was as if he were looking trough a curtain of mist. A yellowish-green ribbon of river water sprayed passed by the doorpost of the truck and brushed across his face. Struggling toward consciousness, he blinked the water from his eyes and peered out the opened window. A hundred yards downriver, the water kicked up, hissed into a spray, and burst into angry, raging rapids. Where jagged black chunks of rotten-teeth-like rocks hung from the shoreline, high waves of water exploded and swelled into pure white foam.
Directly over Blondie's head, streaks of lightning signaled the start of a downpour. In the center of the pale-green river, the arm of the man who had been in the Cadillac made one last dismal splash. When the fingertips of his hand slipped under the surface, a widening pool with a core of air bubbles followed them.
Blondie wanted to swim to the center of the river, dive down, and save the man before he was carried to the rapids, but it wasn't a heroic gesture. Blondie wanted to see what the idiot that had forced him off the road looked like, but the murky water was up to Carolyn's knees. With rain slanting across the cracked and grass spattered windshield, he reached over to lift her from the seat. Her eyes were closed.
He shook her. "Carolyn, are you all right?"
Before she could answer, something under the truck clunked. A powerful jolt jerked him sideways. The truck tilted to one side and sank down. Twin torrents of mustard-colored water rushed down the riverbank and poured over the passenger side window, filling the cab of the truck and began covering Carolyn's head.
Blondie took a deep breath, bent over, and stuck his head into the rising water. Groping around, he found her arm and pulled. It didn't budge. He felt the right side of her body. One of her lovely legs and her frail arm were mashed between the firewall and the caved-in passenger door. He thrust his head up out of the murky water and looked at Carolyn's face. Her unblinking eyes bulged wide open. Her beautiful jaw hung open to her chest, and her wet hair was plastered against her head.
"Don't die now!" Blondie cried. "We've come too far to quit."
A jagged tail of lightening zigzagged through the treetops and sizzled across the roof of the truck. Chest-pounding thunder exploded and echoed down the valley. Water gushed out of the charcoal sky and pounded on the river so hard the water seemed to boil.
The bluish tint in Carolyn's oxygen-deprived face told Blondie the only girl he had ever trusted had met her Maker. Pain he had never felt before, filled his chest. Tears welled up, but he had no time to cry. The water was rising fast. To save himself, he had to get out of the truck, but he couldn't free his left leg. He was scared, but the essence of any good gangster was the ability to admit to himself that he was afraid and then have the discipline to channel it into something that would save his life. He tried to slow his racing heart and assess his options.
During the crash, Al Capone's gold vault, as big as a coffin, had crashed through the back window and grazed his left shoulder. Now the vault tilted at an odd angle. It felt as if its full weight of two thousand pounds was sitting on his left leg. Blondie pushed on the vault. It didn't move. He stretched his neck to the left to see if he could find a way to move the vault off his leg.
The end of the vault was wider than the back window. During impact, its weight had caused it to plow right through the metal surrounding the back window. Then with the power of a runaway freight train, it had zipped past his shoulder, hit the left side of the steering wheel, bent it down, and stopped at the bottom of the steering column. He could see that the vault was jammed as tight as if it had been pounded in with a gigantic hand. He would never be able to move it.
He reached down and grabbed his trapped leg. Pushing with his other foot, he pulled. His leg slipped out an inch but seized solid. The water was up to his chest. With the rain falling fast, in minutes, the water would be over his head. Hoping he could signal someone in a passing car, he craned his neck and searched the far away top of Myers Hill. But in the rain, cars going past up on the road would not see the tracks the Cadillac and Chevy had made when they had gone over the edge. People would drive on by without even a vestige of curiosity. The only way he could get out the death trap would be to cut his leg off.
He reached into his pocket for his knife. It wasn't there. As a goodwill gesture, he had left his suit coat at the old Peacock Alley Bar for Neal, the young man who had made things happen. In his haste to haul the valuable vault away, Blondie had forgotten about the encoded message that led to a box of money at the old Peacock Alley foundation. His knife and the message were in the suit pocket.
He needed something sharp. When the vault had gone through the back of the truck, it may have sheered off a piece of metal. If it had, he could use it to cut off his leg. He felt around on the seat. Nothing. He felt under his arm. His 38 Colt was still there. Seven bullets. Maybe he could shoot his leg off. The water had covered Carolyn's face and rose to a foot below his chin.
He screamed, "Finally I'm a rich man! Why does this have to happen now?"
Trying to gain a little more freedom, he wiggled his body. His leg stayed trapped. He pounded on the bent steering wheel and moaned.
Common sense should have told him not to trust an old gangster like Smeal. Mob guys were dangerous, and there was no telling what they would do. But if he had paid just a little attention to politics, he would have known President Franklin Roosevelt had imposed a ban on U.S. citizens buying, selling, or owning gold in 1933. To him it didn't make any sense to make gold illegal, but the government had done it. In January 1934, the price of gold had risen sixty-five percent. Making owning gold illegal and enforcing the law with a fine of ten thousand dollars, ten years in jail, or both, stopped hoarders from profiting after Congress devalued the dollar. Even at the frozen price of thirty-five dollars an ounce, Blondie figured the troy weight of the vault to be over two thousand pounds, and worth eight hundred forty thousand dollars.
No wonder Capone had devised encrypted letters and made special keys that had led Blondie and three young men to the notorious Jungle Inn Casino, where an unsuspecting victim, thinking he had found the vault and was going to take it, triggered a hidden shotgun that blew his chest wide open. Although the man had been killed, the wooden stock of the shotgun contained clues that led to the hidden mine, and the vault. Blondie wasn't going to sit back and let the wealth of the vault pass him by. He didn't know how, but he was determined to grab a share for himself.
Even though mob guys said Smeal didn't have enough sense to hold down a blow job, he had the connections to get the gold vault across the border. And to stay out of jail, it was always a must to do your business through front men.
Overhead a flurry of hail rattled on the roof. Blondie turned and looked out the open window of the truck. The river pitched magnificently and fired sheets of water into his face. With a vengeance, a chill wind scooped down into the river, sending another volley of spray. It drenched his face and blond hair.
The water level in the truck rose to just under his chin. Holding the Colt in his hand above the water, he checked the action. Would seven bullets be enough to shoot his leg off? Seven good shots might shatter the bone and he would be able to rip his leg free. So what if he would end up with only one leg. When he cashed in the vault, he could buy a new leg and much more. He placed the gun under the water and pointed it at his leg just below his knee.
"Wait!" he yelled.
When he had shot a man in the leg, as a warning, the bullet had hit an artery and the man had bled to death. He didn't want that to happen to him. He reached down, slipped off his belt, and clinched it around his thigh. He held the barrel of the Colt two feet away from his leg. At that distance he couldn't miss. He placed his finger on the trigger, but he didn't fire. He thought about Smeal.
Smeal had made it seem so right. He even had a code name for the vault: "Milk Horse." Blondie wished he had gotten the truck himself. If he had, it wouldn't have been overloaded, and he wouldn't have gotten a beat-up 1948 Chevy truck with a broken spring. For cryin' out loud, it was 1962. He would have stolen something new. He would have stolen something with good tires that wouldn't have slid off the road and sent him and the only girl he had ever loved, sliding down the steep embankment of Myers Hill and crashing into the river.
He grimaced and pulled the trigger on the Colt. It jumped in his hand. A dull plunk came from the water, but he didn't feel the bullet hit his leg. He took a deep breath and bent his head into the water. The water from the cloudburst had rushed down the riverbank and washed yellow mud into the river. He couldn't see. He reached down, and felt where the bullet should have gone into his leg. Nothing. He pulled his head up out of the water. Maybe it was a bad shell. He shot again. Still, nothing.
Then it dawned on him. The cold water had made his leg numb. Now the water was just below his nose. Tilting his head back, he gulped in deep breaths of air. Then he ducked down, bent over, and emptied the Colt into his leg. With all his might, he tried to pull his leg free. Pain shot through his entire body. Throwing his head upward, he gasped for air, but breathed in water.
Struggling to get his head higher, and between coughing out sprays of water from deep in his lungs, he gulped in a few good breaths of air. Then he yanked and twisted his trapped leg. He contorted with pain and belched water, but no matter how much he struggled and squirmed, his trapped leg would not separate. At the last moment he remembered that there were two bones in his bottom leg. He figured had only managed to shoot through one. Now the only way he could shoot his leg off would be to hold the barrel directly on his leg, but he had already spent the last five bullets.
He reached down and felt his leg. Where it should have been shredded from the bullets, it seemed unscathed. Too late, he realized the resistance of the water had slowed down and stopped the bullets. They hadn't even penetrated the cloth on his pants.
As he sat back and waited to drown, he wondered how Al Capone had died in the coalmine that had hid the vault, but he figured in a few minutes he would follow Al Capone's footsteps. He too would shake hands with the Devil.
Although Blondie had always broadcasted a tough guy image with no feelings, he didn't want to face death alone. Holding his breath, he reached over, grabbed Carolyn's limp hand, and pulled. Her lifeless body broke free. He pushed her out the window. With one eye barely above the surface of the water, he watched her beautiful head float face up. If he could free his leg, he could pull her to shore and maybe revive her, but the water went over his head.
He pulled on his leg. It moved about six inches. He stretched his neck and managed to lift his head above the water. There was still a chance. He let loose of Carolyn's hand. She drifted for a moment. Then the current swept her into rising mists of the raging rapids. The last thing he saw of her was a dim flash of her red polished fingernails just before they disappeared in the mad swirling water.
More than ever, Blondie wanted to save her. He pushed against the broken steering wheel and pulled. His leg moved. The rain slowed.
He gulped down one breath of air. Like the coup de grace on a dying man, the wind moaned overhead, bringing a hideous squall that rushed down from the black sky and gushed into the window of the truck. The truck turned sideways and rolled over onto its roof.
While the rain washed away all traces of where the truck had gone off the road, Al Capone's gold vault, the truck, and Blondie sunk to the bottom of the Shenango River.
As gloom and the darkness of death surrounded him, Blondie wondered what would have happened if he had shared the vault with Freddy Crane, the muscular black-haired kid, Rafferty Allnut, the orange-headed wise guy with the wide-toothed smile, and Neal McCord. They weren't the usual fresh-faced kids whose youth made them loud and arrogant. They were quite inventive, and although they came from the wrong side of the tracks, they didn't let it slow them down. When Blondie thought about the third of the trio, Neal McCord, a little laugh escaped from his mouth and sent air bubbles to the surface. When Neal made love with a girl, it was said that they generated so much excitement that people ran for tornado cellars. But then, sadness filled Blondie's chest. He and Carolyn would never make people run for tornado cellars.
He was out of air.